the physics of remembering
This quarter, my stat mech prof introduced our class to a paper titled “the physics of forgetting.” It’s a great paper that talks about the Landauer erasure principle, a reformulation of the second law of thermodynamics that solves the paradox of Maxwell’s demon. As we talked about the paper in class, my mind began to wander: I wondered if anyone had given thought to the “physics of remembering” and what it would entail. I don’t think anyone has, because it runs counter to every other physical theory. Class ended, I left the Zoom sesh, and I leaned back in my chair, marinating and folding the idea over in my mind. I settled on three laws to describe the physics of remembering.
The first law: time is stochastic.
Time can dilate true, but give it a bit and you’ll soon see it contract and undulate. The week drags on with class after class, but before I know it, I’m reading the weekly digest in my email and I remember it’s once again Monday. I wake up on Saturday, and I remember it’s been a while since I’ve called home. Every once in a while, I remember that (or rather, am smacked with) the fact that if this quarter goes well, inshaAllah, I’ll be a PhD candidate. I’m 23 going on 24, and I remember just yesterday I was 21, and friends patted my back as I yakked my guts out after a Friday night formal.
The rate at which time seems to pass, so inconsistently, feels discomforting. I find myself retreating into my head, where things feel a bit more certain. I get into my head a lot because, like everyone else, I grapple with the loneliness of the past year. I do have my roommate, and we’ve grown close, even though I am an ass sometimes: I forget to put on the dishwasher or to clean the dining table or turn the lights off at night. At least for me, I don’t think the absentminded physicist is a stereotype.
Anyways. I have weird routines that often mean I do things alone from my roommate. I never eat dinner between 6 and 8, only before and after. As I sit at the dining table in our living room, I stare out the window at the other tower in our complex, watching folks in miniature scurry about in their small boxy cubicles, tending to their daily errands. They remind me that the world is so large and sonderous, and yet here I am, chilling in a tank top and shorts, eating canned chili because I forgot to defrost chicken that morning. As I sop up the chili with some pita, I think back to where I was last year. Seeing friends in lecture as I walked in with my second cup of coffee for the day. Sitting with them for dinner on Sunday and Thursday every single week. Weekend late night food runs. So many memories. I struggle with finding peace with the past, even though I think about it so much.
The second law: time travel is possible.
Every once in a while, I pull out a cheap, plastic folder from behind my desk. It’s falling apart, held together only by duct tape. I thumb through what’s inside: photos, some taken by me, some not; letters from friends; mementos; keepsakes; little things I’ve bothered to keep through the years. And I’m sucker punched back to the past: to the summer in New Haven where I only ate at the food trucks because I had no clue how to cook; to the first semester of college when I was bright eyed, naïve, and all too full of myself; to the summer I spent in LA reading a copy of Norwegian Wood a friend gifted me. I linger on the fact that the world has changed, and every memory is a slice of time that I can’t go back to. I can’t put into words why these memories hit hard, I can’t find the words to explain why every memory is precious. It’s frustrating, frustrating, frustrating. But I’m for sure not alone. The pandemic has us all feeling nostalgic, one way or another. I’ve been feeling it ever since I graduated.
So it was amidst those thoughts I found myself in my Chicago apartment last September, about to start my PhD. I felt immature. I stood in a brand new city, but my mind was somewhere between Jersey and New Haven. I didn’t feel like a grad student, much less an adult.
My first quarter went fine as I spent time exploring Chicago by foot and by bike, enjoying all the sights, even if there wasn’t all too much to do. I’d made my home in a new place, but I managed to find the past in everything. Saturday would roll around, and for brunch, I’d make the breakfast skillet my old roommate showed me how to make. I’d sit at my desk, LaTeX-ing my pset for the week, and my study playlist would shuffle to Yale a cappella songs I remembered hearing in concert and I would get lost in them. I was lost in nostalgia and its sweetness, and I wondered if I could ever find it in the present.
Well, it’s April now, and I wouldn’t be writing this if the answer was no. But the life I just described feels almost foreign. I look back at my journal from last year, and I’m reading the words of a different person. I smile at the torn folder behind my desk, but I never think to pull it out anymore. Just as time’s erratic passage troubles me, so too I’m perplexed by how quickly I’ve changed since last fall. I ask, what’s the reason, and I have to credit it all to photography.
Let me rewind real quick. I’ve been a photographer for close to half a decade now. I started at the tail end of high school when my friend brought a camera to school. I saw how he would pose our friends, get a smile out of them, and then take the most effortlessly candid and gorgeous photos. And as cheesy as it sounds, that’s what got me into it. I got a DSLR shortly after and had at it. My early photos are embarrassing on every account except for one thing: I made people smile. Being behind the camera felt like home. Capturing moments of candidness and emotion felt like a high.
Living in Jersey, I was a hop and a skip away from New York. So, I dipped my toes a little into street photography. I always looked forward to Saturday — I’d take the subway going God-knows-where and just walk around till sunset snapping my crappy little pics. Was I good? Nah. But I had fun. I remember meetign another photog on the street, and I walked up to him to chat him up. We hit it off so well that we spent the entire day together sightseeing, talking, and snapping pics. I literally never talked to him after that, but it’s a fond memory that reminds me that photos are so intimately tied to experiences with other people. At the end of the day, there’s seriously nothing like loading up your SD card with a ton of pics and on the ride home, all you think about is how good they’re gonna look once you edit them. I was getting my feet wet in a whole new craft. High school was drawing to a close, and I thought, once I get to college, I’ll get even better.
Then, I got to Yale and pretty much gave all that up to become a gig photographer. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. At events and parties, I got paid well, I always had a +1, and I had a ton of fun schmoozing about coaxing people to smile for the camera. And if they had drink tickets? Don’t even mention it. I did headshots for folks, and they were always so happy, and I always wondered why: in my eyes, I was just taking simple pics. Nevertheless, I was glad people liked my photos, and I took pride in that. But between the weekly formal, headshots, psets, and the hubbub of classes, I quickly lost my passion for photography on my own terms. I wasn’t super on top of my stuff in college, so I almost never made time for it. I can count on one hand the number of times I took my camera and just shot for fun. Still, it was clear as day to my friends how much joy I found in it. I remember for my birthday, years ago, a friend gave me a custom leather strap embossed with my name. It hasn’t come off my camera since. Anyways, college was busy, but photos were always on the backburner of my mind, a todo that would always get bumped from this weekend to the next and on and on, to never get done. I’d always make an effort to get back into photos over the summers. I shot museums, Yosemite, LA, San Francisco, filling my camera roll to the brim with photos I’d go through one-by-one, but then September would roll around, and I’d put away the kit to collect dust in the closet.
Still, I brought my camera with me to Chicago. I couldn’t bear to leave it at home. My camera bag sat next to my bed, begging to be used. Every day, I would walk past it, asking when would be the next time I’d pick it up. Its silent beckon grew by the day. And one day, I was browsing Craigslist looking for cheap stuff to furnish our apartment when I had one of those intrusive thoughts — “What if someone’s selling some equipment?” Just my luck, I found a steal on some lights, stands, and umbrellas. I literally had no clue how to use any of it, but I wanted to give it a shot. I met the dude at the local coffee shop and went home to put together a makeshift studio in our apartment. Then I had to really think about the question of who would I take pics of. I wanted to model people, but well, for obvious reasons, I couldn’t. I hesitantly thought, maybe I could model myself? If it’s not clear at this point, I love being the photographer. But, being in front of the camera is a different story. What the hell do I do with my hands? Oh gosh, that pic came out so bad, what the hell? Jeez, my smile is so awkward. It was hard at first to look at pictures of myself and to see beauty in them, but I quickly grew enamored with this new mode of photography.
For years, I never truly loved how I looked. I put on a façade of confidence, but I was deeply insecure about my body. That’s why I fell in love with the studio. It gives me the flexibility to craft compositions and express myself through myself. In that way, it feels like a form of self-love — I’m expressing myself through my style, expression, looks. I can be silly, I can be confident, I can show my pride in my Egyptian and Coptic identity. It’s a physical space that feels like a hug, it’s a space that doesn’t judge me, even though it’s seen every single photo I decided not to publish. And so I’ve developed another weird little routine when it comes to the studio. I don’t take photos earlier than 8 PM. I make a pot of coffee in anticipation, and while it’s brewing, I put on mascara and eyeliner. I’m an amateur so it’s always a little heavy-handed. I walk in holding a mug loaded up with coffee, milk, no sugar. I flip on my speaker to my playlist of Beach House, Fairuz, Kid Cudi, and Mazzy Star. And then I get to work. I’m always more than happy to put off my other work to pursue a spur-of-the-moment idea. My quantum homework can wait while I run to Whole Foods to buy fruit to use as weird props in my photos.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still not great. I’m almost never content with my photos. I’ll edit late into the night until it feels right, then I’ll wake up the next day and be like, “Wow, this is bad.” But I’m learning. I can see the progression over time. I’m better than I was last month and a hell of a lot better than I was a few years ago. It’s hard to believe how the studio has done so much for me, as a total noob. It gives me a way to express myself that doesn’t need words, in a way that can be visceral, even if it does take a lot of trial and error. I can push aside a disappointing day and I find solace in pictures. A photo grounds me to a place and time, to new memories. I look back at the outtakes and I’m suddenly back in November of last year. I can hear the music I had on replay, I can remember how I was feeling that week, all in perfect focus and clarity. And I don’t feel sad or nostalgic, but…content. And then I get giddy thinking about the endless possibilities of the future: taking photos for friends and clients once again, meeting new people, taking summer drives going nowhere just to snap pics I’ll only ever see…
The paradox isn’t lost on me. I’m hopelessly wistful and stuck in the past, seduced by how nostalgia paints everything with a rosy tint. What’s a photo but an image of the past? Yet it’s those mementos of the past that have me living in the moment, excited about the future. My guess is that to take a photo is to mold a memory on my own terms, to make it tangible, that shows things the way I see them. A slice of spacetime made by me, that isn’t subject to time and its endlessly changing whims.
So, I don’t believe a photo is worth a thousand words, because a photo can capture things that can’t be put into words. Like a memory or dream, trying to describe the beauty of its hues loses its resonance.
In all this, I think there’s that third law I was talking about, something about time and memory. I’m coming up short trying to put words to it. But just like a photo, I think it speaks for itself.